Reading at the center of concern for boys and men

by Ken Wallace, Ph.D.

I’m Ken Wallace, the Superintendent for Maine Township High School District 207 in Park Ridge, Illinois. My wife Kristy and I have three grown sons, and I’m the second oldest of six children in my family and the oldest of four sons. I’m a former high school English and journalism teacher, and I’ve also taught computer science courses. It’s my work as a writing teacher that began nearly thirty years ago that first got me more deeply thinking about the differences between boys and girls. In the writing classroom, observant writing teachers often see differences between the sexes as far as writing development in concerned, and in fact, on state and national exams of math and the language arts, it is the writing sub test within the language arts battery of tests where the largest performance gap between boys and girls emerges, data that hold up in every state of the US as well as across the world.

In the late 90’s I was fortunate to hear school improvement leader Mike Schmoker, author of Results Now, speak about data driven school improvement in areas like writing across the curriculum. At the time my school district bought into and followed the Schmoker model for school improvement by systemically teaching writing across the curriculum and tracking student performance on writing assessments by grade level throughout the year. As the person in charge of the high school portion of this work I helped administer and collect the writing data, disaggregating in various ways to compare student performance in as many views as possible in order to determine our strengths and weaknesses. An area that showed up consistently from the elementary grades to the seniors in high school was that our girls always outperformed our boys on writing assessments, and often significantly.

Part of the joy of life is experiencing different lenses or views if you will. I’ve always been interested in challenging “conventional” wisdom, and this work in writing across the curriculum caused me to widen my own lens farther out to consider how our district was like, or different from, other districts. Any number of issues can contribute to girls or boys outperforming the opposite sex in an academic area, and this topic has been postulated, researched, written about, and politicized in ways that have been sometimes humorous but at other times crippling to the fundamental question that educators want to know: how do we improve performance for a group of students? My doctoral dissertation, The differences in language arts performance between male and female students in American public schools, helped me better understand and explore the politics of the question, but also more deeply understand the science behind the question.

Today I’m following a group of neuroscientists such as Laurie Cutting, Sheryl Rimrodt, Daniel Peterson, Martha Denkla, Walter Kaufman, Nicole Davis, Quiyun Fan, Donald Compton, Doug Fuchs, Lynn Fuchs, John Gore, and Adam Anderson among others who, through the use of technologies such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) and position emission tomography (PET) we are able to see the difference between brains that read and write well and those that don’t in ways that we have not been able to before. The results and implications are remarkable and extremely important to this topic. First, the results seem to indicate that individuals who struggle to learn how to read and write have neural pathways that are not developed in the same way as exists in individuals who learn to read and write in a “normal” way, and this condition may exist in up to 30% of the population, the disproportionate number of which are male.

How does this matter? Let’s work backwards. The United States has precious few growth industries in the current economy, but one sector continues to grow at a pace at which few countries in the world can compete: incarceration, another area that disproportionately affects men. And America’s population of incarcerated men includes a disproportionate percentage who are non readers or are poor readers. And while the reading factor correlates to every ethnic group, it is particularly troublesome for African American males. According to Wikipedia, African Americans account for about 40% of the US prison population but just roughly 13% of the total population. Most troubling, according to Wikipedia, the US government is, “building prisons based on third grade reading test scores. They can conclude whether or not a child will go to prison and (sic) if their literacy is low” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Statistics_of_incarcerated_African-American_males).

             Many states use the third grade reading score as an important demarcation point. Those that read below “grade level” at third grade risk being identified for special education placement, though such placement has never been shown to significantly improve a child’s ability to catch up to his or her peers. Recent brain research has shown two important things to the topic: first, a significant portion of individuals are born with neural pathway deficiencies that make it nearly impossible for them to read at “grade level” by third grade regardless of the quality of instruction, though that certainly matters. Second, the brain has great plasticity and the ability to learn and grow neural pathways which become more robust and coated with myelin (see Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code for why this matters).

Walk into any elementary school’s remedial reading classroom and you will seldom find students who are remedial speakers. Why? The brain uses different areas for each process. Oral language has been a necessary element of human development for as long as humans have existed. But reading? The ancient Greeks were the first to suggest that humans who can read would make better informed citizens of a democracy, but that was only within the past 3,000 years. Before that time, most citizens did not read. But virtually everyone spoke. The non readers or poor readers have language and literacy, but they struggle to express it in the one currency that matters most in education: reading. And this struggle often leads to stress, frustration, and failure, but does it have to be so? What if we broadened our lenses to consider a wider view of what it means to be literate? What if we re-thought our view of the necessity of all students to read at grade level by third grade to be better informed by the understanding that some people won’t reach “normal” until the age of 20, or 25, or even 30? And for some, maybe never.

What would a child’s world look like if, instead of being labeled and tested in a code he or she struggled to decipher, we used the natural strengths of oral language combined with instructional technologies to broaden our view of what it means to be literate and to continue to teach literacy skills and strategies over a longer developmental timeframe without concluding that someone was a failure at reading or writing? This question is my passion and it’s a question that we need to take seriously in this country. The conventional wisdom is that students who don’t read well at third grade haven’t been taught well, are not as intelligent as normal readers, or that they simply don’t take school seriously enough. My experience is that none of those is usually the case. No child wants to fail, and the sooner we adjust our own internal lens on the subject of literacy, the better off many children will be. It’s an honor to begin these conversations about the health and welfare of boys and men. I look forward to our future conversations.



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6 Responses to Reading at the center of concern for boys and men

  1. Mark Sherman says:

    Thanks, Ken. Very much appreciate your input.

  2. In my many discussions with educators over the course of my (still developing) learning curve since I came on board The Boys Initiative, I have heard it said that if boys are not imprinted with an interest in reading by fourth grade they are already lost. I’ve heard others say that the opportunity to mold their receptivity to learning through reading is irreparably lost much earlier. What is the consensus view on this issue? Dennis Barbour

  3. Ken Wallace says:

    Dennis,

    One area in which we have a much better understanding is the difference in reading preferences between boys and girls. Boys often prefer non-fiction reading, but for many years elementary school literature choices tended to tilt heavily toward fiction. There is a much better understanding among all teachers and schools not that students need choices. It’s less improtant what a student reads than that they are reading and developing the ability to make meaning of a given text.

    I’m a big fan of digital story telling as one way to help students who are struggling readers. Students using digital story telling use reading, writing, speaking, and listening in a variety of ways in the digital story telling process, but there is room for the non reader or struggling reader to produce quality work that displays literacy of a subject if not yet fluid de-coding literacy. From my perspective, it’s crucial to keep struggling readers connected to ideas and learning, and, more than anything, to promote every student’s natural curiosity. If students can see reading from a meta cognitive perspective, then they can understand that the brain’s archetecture can change to help them become readers, but that only happens for struggling readers if we don’t label them failures long before they’ve had a chance to become successful.

  4. As a writer, reader and mom of four boys, I think we would do well to focus on “stories” rather than “reading” and “writing” in the early years. As Ken writes, most boys (most children, for that matter) love stories. They love listening to them and creating them. But when we insist that stories must only be pursued in writing, we lose children who’s brains and fine motor skills may not be up to the task yet. So take off the pressure. Let kids continue to enjoy stories. The reading and writing part will come.

    • Anonymous says:

      Jennifer,

      Thanks for the comments and for reading. I love and encourage digital story telling. It’s easy and kids love it. I have three sons who are stair stepped about fours years apart each, but the best thing my wife and I did when they were younger was buy a video camera and let them play with it. They used to do claymation videos with play dough, and they would spend hours putting together a five minute video that would have them falling all over themselves laughing. I wished I had video just of their reactions.

      Ken

  5. Mark Sherman says:

    As a “digital immigrant,” someone who did not grow up with personal computers and the Internet, I knew nothing of digital storytelling as a young person. But if it helps to get boys interested in stories before they are ready for reading, I’m fine with it. I do think, however, that since ultimately reading is still very important (and goes hand in hand with writing), it’s important to help boys learn to read as soon as it is practicable – which means just challenging enough, but not unpleasant, frustrating, or overwhelming.
    One thing that I do think would help is to have reading materials that are exciting for boys. When I was in grade school, I “sneaked” adventure books into the classroom, and read with the book under my desk. These are the kinds of books that might entice boys to read early and often.

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